Columns 2009

Electric cars will work in Alaska

Just about the same time that Sarah Palin was opining in the Oct. 16 National Review that, “Electric cars might work in Los Angeles, but they don’t work in Alaska, where you can drive hundreds of miles without seeing many people, let alone many electrical sockets,” I was drafting some material for Ilisagvik College in Barrow. Interestingly, part of the background material I received included the fact that an instructor and students at the college celebrated the successful conversion of a car to electric power by driving the car from Ilisagvik to downtown Barrow.

According to the information I received, the car averaged 35 mph. The electricity powering the car came at a rate of $.09/kilowatt hour as opposed to $4.70/gallon for gas.  This is the equivalent of the car averaging 125 miles per gallon on the jaunt down the road from campus to town. I may not be a great mathematician, but that sure seems like a good deal to me.

Alaskan villages have very limited road systems.  In Barrow, for instance, you can drive from Barrow to Duck Camp, Barrow to Fresh Water Lake or Barrow to the end of Gas Well Road. Anyone who ever lived in Barrow knows that claustrophobic mid-winter feeling that creeps up on even the hardiest of residents. Taking a car ride down one of those roads is sometimes the only relief available.

Given the cost of gas per gallon, I think electric cars would be an amazing boon in the Bush. People wouldn’t have to choose between groceries and gassing their car so they can take that needed mental health break to the lake.

OK, you say, but what about Palin’s other concern, the one where you can drive hundreds of miles in Alaska without seeing many electrical outlets.

You can probably find a similar statement made in the days when automobiles were first starting to replace horses.  Sure, said many op ed pieces of the day, they’re good in the city where you can get gasoline but they’ll never be practical on long trips because there are simply not enough places along the way to fuel up. Between New York and Chicago, there are no gas stations.

We all know what happened next.  Cars became more and more popular and people started traveling farther and farther into the heartland using them. And canny American entrepreneurs thought to themselves that here was an opportunity for a whole new enterprise… gas stations along the roads of America that would meet the needs of those horseless carriages.

And so an entire business model was created to meet the new demands of the nascent car industry.

I think Americans are every bit as much the entrepreneurs at the turn of this century as they were at the turn of the previous century. Given a perceived need, they will create an industry to meet that need. Where once we had gas stations springing up with astounding rapidity on what had been dusty country roads, we will now have electricity stations springing up along our highways instead.

I realize that electric cars will probably not replace gas or diesel vehicles with quite the speed that cars replaced horses. Like with anything new, we probably need to go through a few more variations to get to the one that will work best. But to totally discount the idea of a cleaner, cheaper alternative to what we are using today, especially in view of the mounting evidence of the destruction global warming is causing, is simply foolish.

The people in Barrow are on the frontline of global warming – sea ice is disappearing, permafrost is melting, plants once only found far south of town creep closer.  They have a vested interest in protecting this earth because its continued warming threatens their entire way of life. So the students at Ilisagvik built an electric car and showed that it can be a safe, cheap, environmentally friendly alternative. 

Maybe Palin needs to move back to Alaska for a while and reconnect with our reality. Electric cars will work just fine here and the new businesses that will spring up to service and charge them will be a boon to our economy. Clearly a win-win for all.